Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

I am writing a paper about the ability of policy scholars to describe and explain policymaking in a way that is understandable to policymakers and practitioners (it will appear here and here). The background discussion is about the extent to which there is too much jargon in the literature. If so, it may act as a barrier to meaningful discussions between academics and policymakers (which may be seen as particularly problematic in this new age of academic ‘impact’). The paper suggests that many academic insights are useful, as a basis for discussion with policymakers, if we take the time to discuss them together.

The aim of this post is a bit different: to see if I can summarise and translate the concepts to the readers of the post *without* any discussion! I will do it by removing almost all of the jargon from the paper (which often means more words – the jargon is a useful shorthand). I think that this task is made much easier by the slow trickle of these ideas into the public consciousness. For example, one conclusion you can take from the discussion is that a change of party in government does not produce a massive change in policy. This is something that you tend to hear in public discussions (although I admit that the discussions may not draw much from policy theory). So, I will continue this theme, by outlining some common phrases (associated largely with the pathology of policymaking) and using policy theory to help explain them in a way that might, in some cases, make the whole business of government a bit less disheartening. Or, I will make up these phrases for effect. Definitely one or the other. I will also put those phrases in capital letters, so that you can imagine them being shouted by someone looking for attention.


I think that you can divide this sort of frustration into two main parts: ministers generally don’t take the blame for things going wrong; and/ or no-one seems to get the blame for something going wrong in individual cases (such as in cases of child cruelty or hospital mismanagement).

The argument with ministers is so strong because we support the idea that governments are accountable to the public via Parliament. So, ministers are in charge and they report to Parliament. Or, they get a telling-off from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. Yet, ministers have two good reasons not to take the blame.

First, policy is often now made at many levels (and types) of government. For example, something like ‘tobacco policy’ is actually a collection of policies made by the European Union, UK and, in some cases, devolved governments (and sometimes local authorities). Policy is also often carried out by a range of bodies which often operate at ‘arms length’ from ministers. In some cases, this looks like ministers are simply passing the buck to other bodies, to avoid making controversial decisions. In others, there is good reason to maintain these arrangements. My favourite example is in mental health where there are arms-length bodies there to make sure that doctors and social workers use the Mental Health Act correctly when they ‘section’ people. Those bodies have to exert a degree of independence to assure the public that they are not simply there to back up the decisions of others.

The outcome of these multi-level and arms-length arrangements is that ministers cannot simply make policy. Instead, they are increasingly obliged to negotiate policy with a wide range of other bodies.

The second defence for ministers is that they cannot pay attention to all of the issues for which they are responsible. In fact, they can only pay attention to a tiny proportion – which makes it entirely plausible for them to look shocked when a decision, made in their name, has gone badly. This is also why regular changes of government do not cause wholesale shifts in policy: most decisions are beyond the reach of ministers.    The sheer size of government means that it could easily become unmanageable. So, governments break policy down into more manageable departments, and a large number of divisions within departments, dealing with issues that involve a smaller number of knowledgeable participants.  Most policy is made at a level of government not particularly visible to the public or Parliament, and with minimal ministerial or senior civil service involvement.  These arrangements exist because there is a logic to devolving decisions and consulting with certain groups.  Ministers rely on their officials for information and advice.  For specialist issues, those officials rely on specialist organisations.  Organisations trade that information and advice (and other things, such as the ability to generate agreement among large and influential groups) for access to, and influence within, government. Ministers are *responsible* for this activity, and they can set the tone of many of the debates, but they cannot pay attention to everything going on. In fact, paying attention to one issue means ignoring most others. So, that look of permanent befuddlement on Newsnight may be entirely understandable.

The other sort of problem relates to things going wrong in local and health authorities when, for example, a child is not protected or a patient is treated badly while in care. Organisations hold inquiries and learn lessons but no one is necessarily strung up and blamed for the problem. The defence in this case is that public sector professionals do not have the ability to carry out all of their responsibilities. They are subject to such a wide range of rules, regulations and expectations from government that they cannot pay attention to them all (I tend to think of this comic strip, but it’s not that bad – . Instead, they use their judgement to satisfy an adequate proportion of government objectives. As a result, things go wrong and we find that some people or organisations did not carry out government policy. In these cases, it is not easy to blame an organisation – they *have* to ignore some directions to make sure that they follow others. It is also difficult to blame ministers, because the chances are that they already have policies in place to deal with these sorts of things – they just weren’t carried out.


The explanation for this practice is quite similar:  policymakers can only pay attention to a small number of the issues for which they are responsible.  So, they ignore most and promote a few to the top of their agenda, often following a major event or a successful media campaign by certain groups. So, for every issue to which ministers (and senior civil servants) pay attention, they must ignore (say) 99 others.  The tendency to focus on that one issue *might* produce major policy change when, for example, so much pressure is required to get ministerial attention that, when they do, it is a bit like a dam busting; a wide range of people get involved to influence policy in a short space of time.  However, the logical consequence to their attention to that one issue is that the same thing does not happen in most other cases. In most cases, it is business as usual, since so much policymaking is devolved to people who operate out of the public and political spotlight.


I said that this concentrated attention on some issues *might* change things because it also might not. There are four main reasons to expect less than radical change following these bursts of attention. First, people might find that there is no easy solution to the problem receiving so much attention. Good, sensible, acceptable solutions take time to develop and it is possible for public and ministerial attention to lurch to another issue before this problem is solved (or at least solved to the satisfaction of policymakers and influential groups). Indeed, as silly as it sounds, a key feature of policymaking is that the solution to a problem may be devised *before* there is significant attention to the problem. Second, policymakers do not have the brain power or resources to consider all options and the consequences of their policies. So, many rely on trial-and-error policymaking or depart from current policy in a series of steps. For policymakers, this has the added benefit of reduced controversy: radical policy change always produces winners and losers; a government could try to impose its will, but this can be politically expensive and governments can only spend so much. Third, governments inherit policy before they choose. Any ‘new’ policy is likely to be a revision of an old one, perhaps following some degree of failure. They might want to make serious changes, but they are also constrained by decisions made by governments in the past – decisions that produce organisations, rules, regulations and employees that are difficult to remove.

Finally, things don’t change overnight because people’s beliefs don’t change overnight. In most cases, policymakers ‘learn’ from their experience (which includes their mistakes) but their learning is influenced heavily by the way that they understand the world. Or, in a wider sense, there may be a particular understanding of the policy problem, and its solution, that is promoted by a wide range of powerful groups. Events may draw attention to policy problems without changing that balance of power or the fundamental beliefs of those involved. Maybe the most obvious example just now is the banking crisis which produced some changes but not radical change in the way that governments treat the financial sector – but the same point could be made whenever we see crises in areas such as health or education. 


The final point to remember is that the study of policy is the study of power: the relatively powerful and the relatively powerless; the winners and the losers. Importantly, power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group wins and another loses. Rather, it can take at least two other important forms. First, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in places that might be considered private or public? If you reached this blog via twitter, you will be very familiar with how this process looks in practice: people make policy suggestions, they receive some support, then they receive an absolute barrage of criticism, and often abuse, by others. In this context, groups may be powerful if they are able to reinforce the anti-policy-change attitudes already held by many people.

Second, groups may exercise other forms of power to keep an issue off the government agenda. As I said above, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, groups may exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’ – more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society. Again, if you are a follower of twitter, you may get the impression that people pay attention to nothing but safe issues for a few seconds at a time. I’m afraid I can’t do anything to make *that* seem less dispiriting.


Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Making Sense of Policymaking: why it’s always someone else’s fault and nothing ever changes

  1. Wonderful account of the (real) way in which public policies are considered, developed and acted upon (or not). Thank you. Excellent effort, also, in not using the word 'complexity' or 'complex' anywhere in this text. I quite liked that you both described the elements that positively affect change as well as the barriers (e.g. human and institutional limitations) resistors (e.g. human and organizational activity) to change. Both this post and your paper are welcome contributions to describing public policy in a more realistic manner. My personal experience suggests that people who want influence change (whether a scholar or an advocate) sometimes forget that the people they are seeking to influence are human. In other words, decision-makers and policy-makers alike have the knowledge, experience and expertise they have. It takes time for people,as you allude to later in this post, to "unlearn" something. More than changing beliefs, we sometimes forget that attitudes, values and behaviours (to name but three factors) are also at work within us…leaving us receptive or resistant to change. Many of the realities (i.e. barriers to change) you have identified point directly to our humanity. Understanding these realities is, in my opinion, a first step to understanding what might be a better way (i.e. changing our own behaviours) to communicating with that other person to influence policy change.

  2. Pingback: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Power and Ideas | Paul Cairney: Politics and Policy

  3. Pingback: Taking lessons from policy theory into practice: 3 examples | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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